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Friday, November 26, 2004

Ideology vs empiricism (Irving Kriston

Irving Kristol Is An Ideologue

Irving Kristol has written an essay recently that has attracted a fair amount of attention entitled The Neoconservative Persuasion (or see here) (my bold emphasis added below)

Finally, for a great power, the “national interest” is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation. A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.

Note his defense of the ideological. Kristol doesn’t oppose communism because it is an ideology. He opposes it because he thinks it is the wrong ideology. While he travelled from the Left to the Right and rejected communism his continued love of abstract systems of political belief causes him to miss an incredibly important point: all ideologies are wrong. Ideologies can be thought of as abstract philosophies translated into systems of political mythology to provide guidance for political decision making. An ideology is constructed from a set of simplifying assumptions about humans as political, social, and economic actors. Simplifying assumptions are frequently necessary to make because we can’t know enough to model the world in our minds as it really is. But we must constantly remind ourselves that simplifying assumptions are not Truths. We have to be alert to situations where our simplifying assumptions just will not work and we shouldn’t try to hang on them in the face of empirical evidence that contradicts them.

The problem with ideologies is that no ideological system of belief even begins to approach the complexity needed to provide correct answers for all political decision making. For the same reason that central planning is impossible (the models can never be complex enough or have enough of the relevant information to be sufficiently predictive) any ideology is going to be wrong too much of the time and should not be followed dogmatically.

People who embrace neoconservatism or libertarianism or liberalism as an ideology are all making the same kind of mental mistake as communists make but they are doing it with a different set of wrong simplifying assumptions. Each ideological belief system, built from its own unique set of simplifying assumptions, will lead to wrong decisions under a variety of circumstances.

How often or how badly any given ideological system will fail and lead to wrong political choices depends on how often reality deviates from its assumptions. An analogy can be seen in clasical mechanics vs relativistic mechanics in physics. If one travels at very high speeds the simplifying assumptions underlying classical mechanics will cause greater problems than if one travels at much slower speeds. The same sort of thing happens with humans. The sorts of political decisions that work in a homogeneous society can start failing to work if a society becomes racially or culturally or in some other way more varied. Or a given set of decisions about law and order flowing from some assumptions about how the level of natural propensity to be law-abiding can work in a society which has strong marriages and other institutions but those same prescriptions can become inadequate or even counterproductive when those institutions deteriorate.

Because the world is so complex we must allow ourselves to constantly be guided by empirical results. As Steve Sailer pointed out in his essay “The Unexpected Uselessness of Philosophy” it was the anti-abstract British tradition that produced the incredibly valuable empirical political philosophers of the Scottish and English Enlightenment period.

Fortunately, one school of philosophy has actually taught us some valuable lessons over the centuries: the anti-abstract British tradition of Roger Bacon, Francis Bacon and David Hume, with its emphasis on realism, common sense and the scientific method.

When Thomas Jefferson was sending books back from Paris to James Madison about the great republics in history to help Madison formulate ideas on how to construct a republic in the American colonies Jefferson and Madison were largely motivated by this belief that political ideas must be founded on empirical experience and that one’s political beliefs must be open to correction by empirical results. This willingness to embrace empirical results led to some great decisions on the part of Jefferson and Madison. But since they had empirical minds so mindful of local conditions (e.g. Jefferson thought democracy could work much better in an agricultural society of landowners) they likely wouldn’t view those decisions as universally workable in as many societies and cultures as many of their modern neoconservative fans hold them to be.

Many neocons hold a triumphalist belief in the inevitable spread of freedom, democracies, and free markets. By contrast, a rather more empircally minded Arnold Kling, in his own response to Kristol’s essay, warns that events could develop in ways that cause a blacklash against freedom and markets.

The assumption that people will appreciate the benefits of economic growth is a risky one to make. Economic growth requires change. Old jobs must be destroyed in order for new ones to be created. Incumbents will be threatened. And, as Ronald Bailey points out, “opponents of technological progress often want decisions about new technologies to be made in political arenas. Opponents of a given new technology believe that they will have more luck by lobbying their local congressperson or member of parliament to vote to prohibit its development.”

One can argue that the disruption unleashed by rapid economic growth helped produce fascism and Communism. Brink Lindsey argues persuasively that the dead hand of collectivist ideology still influences policy in our country today. The political appeal of denunciations of outsourcing indicates that the support for free markets is fragile and tenuous.

Kling cites the example of many European countries where the welfare state has gotten too large and yet it is not politically possible to roll it back. In my view mass immigration (which many ideological libertarians support uncritically) may lead to that same outcome in the United States as a growing number of poor immigrants demand ever more government help. Humans compare themselves to those around them and feel it is unfair if they do not do as well. Poor immigrants and their advocates provide powerful support for the extension of the welfare state.

Rather than simply arguing for less goverment or more freedom a more nuanced and empirical view asks whether there are policies that nomimally seem to increase freedom but may lead to more state involvement in private lives and less freedom. In Kling’s article he brings up the possibility that foreign involvements may cause Americans to become so weary of the world that more of them will support world government. In Kling’s blog post others in the comments section discuss whether recreational drug legalizaton will create support for a larger welfare state to take care of drug addicts. These kinds of questions are motivated by a non-ideological and empirical attitude toward governance.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/26 at 11:57 AM
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